Open access or open wallet academic publishing?

One of the expected duties of an academic career is to publish one’s work. This involves, of course, careful preparation and execution. The last major step is (or used to be the last one!) to submit a finished manuscript to a reputable journal to be carefully vetted by one’s peers. Now, however, there is an additional hoop to jump through: Can you afford to pay to have your work published, too?

Historically, and I am talking literally as little as 10 years ago, journal publishers financially relied mostly on individual subscriptions which could be relatively cheap, or library subscriptions which were typically quite costly. This meant that individual journals often did not charge authors to publish their works unless the papers were excessively long or had to have special elements such as color photos. Thus, for the first 25 years of my scientific publishing career I don’t think that I paid more than maybe 2 or 3 times any charges affiliated with my work. This has radically changed over the past few years. The change is called Open Access.

The problem with the historical model was that it worked great if you worked at a major institution like in the University of California system, which prides itself on subscribing to the widest selection of journals. As a scholar at UCLA, I have free access to almost anything that is published. But if you worked at a less well-endowed institution or were not in academia at all, you would have to pay to get access to the literature. Even though individual subscriptions might be cheap, very few could afford or want to subscribe to dozens of relevant journals. Often your only hope to getting that key article you needed was to send a postcard reprint request to the author and hope for an altruistic response!

Open Access was a different publishing model that got away from the financial barriers to access. Journal articles can now appear online and be read and downloaded without cost to any reader. Open access, however, obviously kills the library and individual subscription revenue stream. Who would pay for a journal subscription when everything is being made available for free?

Although the costs of only-online publishing are far less than making paper journals, money must still come from somewhere. Thus, page charges to authors. I do support this and over the past few years have actually paid several times for publishing. Moreover, the page charge model appears to be rather successful at producing revenue. Like a beacon attracting moths, academic publishing has had an incredible influx of scam artists and grifters who are willing to publish anything without peer review, and without checking for plagiarism. Just as long as they get paid! This has reached the point where academic search engines such as Google Scholar are being seriously infected by junk science published in predatory journals (see Jeff Beall’s extensive monitoring of Open Access).

But what is also happening within legitimate Open Access is that the publishing paradigm has been flipped. It used to be that the poor academic could always publish, but not always read. Now the poor can always read, but can they still publish? Maybe not, as here’s my tale of woe.

I recently submitted a paper to Ecology and Evolution, a journal put out by the publisher Wiley. Prior to sending my paper to an editor for consideration, I got an inquiring email, roughly asking, “Would I be willing to pony up $1560 should the paper be accepted?” Encouragingly, the email also started with a promise that acceptance would not be contingent upon ability to pay. A few lines later, however, the hammer dropped. Should I decline to promise payment in advance, my manuscript would not be sent to the editor for consideration in the first place. It would be withdrawn and sent back to me. A perfect Catch-22!

As I said, I do support Open Access as a concept, but currently I do not have grant funding dedicated to page charges. It seemed quite a lot to me that might otherwise go into my kids’ college savings funds. So, I asked for a waiver in reply. After all, I had been very nice to Wiley in the past; reviewing multiple manuscripts quite promptly for a number of their journals, all without any pay. Not to brag, but I do have a decent scientific reputation and I believe the manuscript was quite good and would be helpful for Wiley’s Impact Factor (which they use to promote E&E). Finally, I would willingly pay their page charges in the future if I ever get another research grant (there’s another tale to be told in a future posting!).

Wiley’s answer? Absolutely not, and why aren’t you appreciative that $1560 includes a 20% discount already?

Thus, it seems to me that many Open Access publishers now see page charges as the goose that lays unlimited golden eggs. They have broken with the historical compact of understanding between authors and publishers. We academics would sit on journal editorial boards, review papers, and do all the hard lifting that ensures journal quality for no pay. In return, we would be cut a break during those periods in our careers when we were cash-poor. Apparently publishers like Wiley are happy to keep that first half – you do the work, pro bono – but we still expect you to always pay us for the privilege of putting your formatted work online.

Here is now my current and future reply to Wiley and all Open Access published journals when they ask me to review a paper or sit on their editorial boards. “What is your policy on waiving your fees for authors such as grad students or others that may not have institutional or grant support dedicated to publishing costs?” If the best they will do is a minimal discount then in return I will now be demanding payment for reviewing or editing. After all, it looks like I’ll need to develop a new revenue stream if I want to continue to be a productive scientist!


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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.


  1. November 7, 2014 at 3:38 am —
  2. November 7, 2014 at 4:27 am —

    Nice piece, and very true! Thank you.
    I also know a guy who submitted an interesting paper to a relatively new but “well-established” open-access publisher, targeting a journal section where no article processing charges are required for that section, but the editorial office clearly asked the handling editor to shamelessly reject the paper because it was submitted to a journal section that does not generate money!
    What a shame!
    The open access is a good option when we are readers but a black hole when we are authors.
    Thank you again for you thoughtful piece! Keep it updated on this shameless practices of the open access!


  3. November 16, 2014 at 8:44 am —

    Part of the solution involves the funding agencies. When asking for a grant from funding agencies that mandate open access dissemination of research results (which is very reasonable when research is paid with public funds), it is common to include items in the budget related to paying for the open access publication fees.

    However, I do agree that the current charges are excessive. I hope to see them reducing over time to a few hundred dollars at most.

    Also: note that researchers in developing countries usually get an automatic waiver of these charges, so this change is really beneficial to institutions that didn’t have the money to pay the publishers before, and still don’t have it today because they run in a country were research funding in absolute terms is way less than in the developed world.

    • November 16, 2014 at 11:33 am —

      Absolutely correct. A number of OA journals do waive fees for scientists from developing countries, and this is a very good thing. But I don’t know the % of OA publishers that do this, nor how many waive fees for academics from developed countries that nevertheless don’t have money dedicated to paying such charges. As for adding in OA fees into grants… This is something now that everyone has to do. Again, 10-15 years ago I never wrote page charges in my proposals. They were so rare in my field that reviewers of the grant would simply think I was gold-plating my work. Now, I’ll probably ask for at least 10-15K$ because I want to publish my stuff and also pay for my grad students to be able to do the same. And I run a small lab. Imagine a lab that might have a dozen or more grad students and postdocs and publishes 40-50 papers/yr. Extrapolate that across hundreds of labs and now you have very serious amounts of NSF and NIH money that is no longer supporting the actual research, itself (nor paying the salaries of the grad students and postdocs that do it). Overall, this must mean fewer and fewer new grants given out, creating an expanding class of the “new poor”: The ever increasing number of unfunded working scientists in developed countries. The whole business model of OA, therefore, depends on governments (i.e., the taxpayers, if you are Republican!!!) to fund it, and unpaid professionals to produce the ‘content’ and to do all the hard work to keep it running and academically rigorous. It is inescapable that OA can only exist within this sort of institutional buy-in, but… Given such a largesse from the entire academic enterprise, is it really too much to ask that OA publishers waive or substantially reduce their fees for the new poor? And if they don’t, my answer is that my services will henceforth require payment!

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